I think the bank stocks look cheap, as I highlighted with a few in a recent post. But there are issues with lending right now — and I am not even including the wave of defaults & impairments people expect or forbearance.
In the article in the WSJ titled, The Day Coronavirus Nearly Broke the Financial Markets, there is this scoop on what was going on in the market. Essentially, banks held interest rate hedges on it books and when rates went down, the hedges swung in the banks favor and out of companies favor who decided to hedge.
What is funny is that this was seemingly good thing for banks — they had a gain on their books — but actually restricted their ability to deploy capital:
So when Mr. Rao called senior executives for an explanation on why they wouldn’t trade, they had the same refrain: There was no room to buy bonds and other assets and still remain in compliance with tougher guidelines imposed by regulators after the previous financial crisis. In other words, capital rules intended to make the financial system safer were, at least in this instance, draining liquidity from the markets.
One senior bank executive leveled with him: “We can’t bid on anything that adds to the balance sheet right now.
Matt Levine summed up the intricacies well in his recap on this. This scenario plus consumers depositing a bunch of cash at the bank (due to fear in the market) resulted in an increase in the bank balance sheet, but also required additional regulatory restrictions with the balance sheet growth.
The Fed stepped in and said that, temporarily, they would ease these restrictions through March 2021:
Liquidity conditions in Treasury markets have deteriorated rapidly, and financial institutions are receiving significant inflows of customer deposits along with increased reserve levels. The regulatory restrictions that accompany this balance sheet growth may constrain the firms’ ability to continue to serve as financial intermediaries and to provide credit to households and businesses. The change to the supplementary leverage ratio will mitigate the effects of those restrictions and better enable firms to support the economy.
This is good and as I showed in my last post on banks, the amount of capital banks hold now is insane compared to what they had going into the Great Financial Crisis. The Fed agrees:
Financial institutions have more than doubled their capital and liquidity levels over the past decade and are encouraged to use that strength to support households and businesses. The Board is providing the temporary exclusion in the interim final rule to allow banking organizations to expand their balance sheets as appropriate to continue to serve as financial intermediaries, rather than to allow banking organizations to increase capital distributions, and will administer the interim final rule accordingly
Why did we tell banks after the GFC that they needed to increase their reserve requirements? So that they would be able to provide support in a crisis, not be a source of weakness. That is what is happening now.
I think we need to go a step further and actually lower the capital requirements for the foreseeable future. When you crimp credit, you crimp the economy. Lowering reserve requirements for some time would unleash significant amounts of capital into the system. So far the Fed has just said certain assets won’t count against the risk-weighted assets. With the rule expiring in 2021, it doesn’t really help banks feel super confident.
Here is the chart again of what banks capital levels look like – exiting 2019 with a median level of 12.8%.
Tier 1 Capital represents core equity capital to risk weighted assets and essentially represents the capital not committed to meeting the banks liabilities. The reason you have excess capital is to prepare for unforeseen events, which is why regulators require a minimum of 4%, but higher (6%) for large banks. Investors typically want to see 150% above the minimum. That foots to 6% and 9% respectively… And the big banks were near 13%. The excess capital allowed banks to invest, conduct share buybacks or dividends.
But its clear to me that banks learned their lesson from the last crisis – they did not want to buy the cause again so they carried significant amounts of capital.
I think the Fed / Govt should lower the reserve requirement to unleash more capital into the system from banks, not just central banks. They clearly have excess capital, they just need to be encouraged to deploy it. Imagine how much capital would be deployed if banks went from 12% or 10% to 6%? We then could say they have to get back to 9% in 5 years.